On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump has taken to calling COVID-19 a “fake news media conspiracy.” But the numbers don’t lie: Daily new cases are running at record levels and climbing fast. We’re well into a third wave of hospitalizations, and there are worrying signs that deaths may be starting to rise once again.
What’s more, unlike the spikes in the US in the spring and summer, which hit hardest in the Northeast and the Sun Belt, respectively, the current surge is happening nationwide: COVID-19 cases are currently rising in almost every state.
As cold weather forces people inside, where transmission of the virus is more likely, experts fear that we are heading into a perilous winter when it will be even harder to shut down its spread.
“What we’re seeing right now is not only worrisome with such widespread transmission and high case counts,” Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona and a member of the Federation of American Scientists’ Coronavirus Task Force, told BuzzFeed News by email. “But with impending holidays, likely travel, and people moving indoors due to colder weather, I’m increasingly concerned that this will be a rather steep and long third wave.”
The US is now well into a third surge in cases and hospitalizations
Last week saw a record number of COVID-19 cases as the daily count of new cases spiked above 80,000 and the 7-day rolling average, which helps smooth out the daily variation in case reporting across the week, approached 70,000.
That’s already higher than the peak of the summer surge in July. And worryingly, the number of people dying of COVID-19 may also be starting to rise, after running at an average of 750 deaths per day for about a month.
As COVID-19 surged across Sun Belt states like Arizona and Texas this summer, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned the Senate that things could get much worse. “I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 [cases] a day if this does not turn around,” Fauci testified on June 30.
At the time, governors seemed to heed his call. In July, many of the states with surging cases were able to turn things around by reversing their moves to reopen businesses including gyms, cinemas, and bars and restaurants with indoor dining. But, facing huge economic and social pressures to return to something like normality, states have once again been relaxing controls.
“We are stepping back from control measures in a lot of places,” Rachel Baker, an epidemiologist at Princeton University, told BuzzFeed News.
Baker has also modeled the effects of winter weather on viral transmission. Although the coronavirus doesn’t yet seem to be seasonal to the same extent as flu, the virus can spread more easily in cold, dry air, making it even harder to control the current surge.
“Cold weather could drive people indoors,” Baker told BuzzFeed News. “If you’re just on that boundary of having control, then climate could push you over the edge.”
Cases are surging in almost every state
Another difference between the current surge and the second wave in the summer is that cases are now rising across almost the entire nation. On Jun. 30, when Fauci testified to the Senate, the map above showed many states with sharply rising cases but some with declining numbers, including several in the Northeast, including New York, plus Nebraska and South Dakota.
As Trump has tried to divert attention from the worsening situation, his COVID-19 denial has extended even to an unfounded claim, made at a rally in Wisconsin on Oct. 24, that hospitals are inflating COVID-19 death counts to profit from the pandemic — prompting outraged responses from doctors’ groups.
It was a “reprehensible attack on physicians’ ethics and professionalism,” Jacqueline Fincher, president of the American College of Physicians, said in a statement.
The rise in hospitalization has so far so been slower than in the previous two spikes. But hospitals in several states, including Utah and Wisconsin, are now nearing capacity, forcing state governments to make emergency plans.
On Oct. 25, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the opening of an alternate care facility at the El Paso Convention and Performing Arts Center with an initial capacity of 50 beds, following earlier moves to deploy hundreds of additional medical personnel to the region to respond to surging COVID-19 cases.
“The alternate care site and auxiliary medical units will reduce the strain on hospitals in El Paso as we contain the spread of COVID-19 in the region,” Abbott said.